One of the worst aspects of moving suddenly and inexplicably to a distant location is meeting new people. Explore the city streets, scan the faces in the crowd—a bunch of weirdoes. No recognizable people to be seen. Only new people. New people with new faces and new names I have to waste time trying to remember. There’s a vast portion of humanity who enjoy meeting new people, relish it even, asking grocery store cashiers how their day’s going, striking up a conversation on the subway, and so forth. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. If I were an animal, I’d be a polar bear, wandering the desolate arctic wasteland, mauling any living thing I encounter due to a crippling fear of rejection/ contempt. That’s not actually true. I’d be a blue whale. Or a platypus. Or a tiger. Or a moth.
There’s this idea floating around in the culture that meeting new people is always an enriching experience because new people are always smart, interesting, and have a novel worldview that will spark a reexamination and revitalization of your own attitude toward life. Fallacious nonsense. Most people (90%?) are incompatible with me due to personality disorders, behavioral flaws, or weird mouths. They have names like Gary or Sarah or Christopher—disgusting. They want to talk about their pets, sports, or where they like to purchase their dishware (“Home Goods mostly, but I also like Big Lots.”). And then it takes an agonizingly long time to discover this incompatibility, countless hours of my limited mortal life wasted on the slow steady accumulation of this person’s personal information and character quirks, building inevitably toward my rejection of their friendship. How depressing for the both of us.
If I could skip the painful small talk and introductory conversation associated with meeting new people and transition directly to comfortable repartee, I would make that happen. If there was a cerebro-type machine that plugged into your forehead and installed a fundamental understanding of every human being on the planet so I never had to meet another person, could know everyone on earth, could merge with the vast collective human spirit, I would purchase this machine obviously.
Back in Texas, I avoided meeting new people because I felt I had met enough of them. Better to devote time to nurturing preexisting friendships with a small elite group than fritter away time on some new person who will probably prove to be an asshole. My thought was, ‘I’ve met enough people. I’m done,’ in the way a person who’s married would say, “Great, I don’t have to experience the awkwardness of dating anymore.” I didn’t actively avoid human contact, but I didn’t pursue interaction with people either. I sometimes wonder how many cool people I’ve deprived myself of meeting by erecting a cold impenetrable veneer, how many important friendships and contacts and girlfriends I’ve avoided over the years, but mostly I just think about cute cats, Spider-Man, and cake, and then I take a nap.
I moved temporarily to Chicago to take a couple improv classes and during orientation, I’m surrounded by a crowd of presumably “hilarious” strangers. You’d think everyone would meet and greet each other, these friendly extroverts, but instead they clung to their seats and stared straight ahead as one would on an airplane in severe turbulence. I sat there with a constipated facial expression and a nervous feral glare—should I play the role of ‘funny friendly easygoing guy’ or shall I retreat into judgmental asshole mode? Following a protracted and heroic internal struggle, I turned around to a kid sitting behind me and introduced myself. We discussed our reasons for taking the class, then our hometowns, then our previous achievements. At the end of this discussion, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake.
My new “friend” sees me come up a set of stairs to the classroom. “I noticed you take steps two at a time,” said the kid. “Yeah, I take them three at a time.”
I stared at him. The silence hung in the air like a poisonous gas, asphyxiating me, killing my soul. He said many more things, many more things, each more disappointing than the last. Hearing someone make “hilarious jokes” is worse than a baby crying on an airplane while someone puke-burps a little in his/ her mouth. It’s the little death, the creeping horror, the mind splinter. Fortunately, through subtle social cues (turning around when he’s talking, rolling my eyes, moving to the other side of the room) I managed to murder our tenuous friendship in the womb. This all occurred in the space of maybe ten minutes.
On the other hand, I’ve had several perfectly satisfactory experiences meeting new people. My new roommates both seem like smart reasonable guys who wouldn’t do anything unspeakably heinous like, say, steal the lease money and lie about it—which has happened to me before. Or invite a skacore (hardcore ska?) band to practice in the room next to mine, thus throwing my delicate mental machinery into disarray—which has also happened to me before. Or wield a machete for no reason, eat my food, drunkenly describe a murder they may or may not have committed a few months ago, etc. Furthermore, a man on the street helped me with directions when I passed him, stopped, looked around at the street signs, and then began walking in the opposite direction. Later, a strange lady sitting on my front stoop offered to show me around the neighborhood, but not in a creepy way. Shockingly, she had no fiendish hidden motives at all. She just wanted to walk around. I’ve encountered a surprisingly high number of cool new people here, so many it causes me to question and recalculate my previous percentage of 90% in regards to people I’m incompatible with.
In the end, meeting new people will improve my social skills and probably my overall humanity as well though I will hate every moment of it the way Voldemort hates love notes and birthday parties. It will be a harsh painful exercise, but I’ll get through it somehow. I have to get through it. From now on, the only people in my life will be new people.